Media Watch

How did two TV stations get duped by a fake suicide story?


On the heels of the death of a 10-year-old boy struck by a Pima County Sheriff's Deputy, television stations KGUN TV 9 and KVOA TV 4 reported another sad twist in the situation.

The mother of the boy's best friend said her son, distraught by what had happened, committed suicide shortly thereafter. The woman, identified in the KGUN story as Genesee Pineda, said, "he didn't want his friend to go by himself." Pineda said her son died at UMC.

The woman also showed up at charity fundraisers for the boy who was killed, and family members felt distraught that she was enduring a loss similar to the one they were suffering.

The father of the boy who was killed even considered donating some of the proceeds to the woman to help with her loss.

Sad indeed. Except, apparently, none of it is true. It looks as though the woman made up the whole thing. Law enforcement is now on the case to investigate what happened and if any charges can be levied.

A few days after running with the initial story, KGUN and KVOA reported concerns about what the woman had said. KGUN's retraction story featured long-time reporter Craig Smith (Smith did not file the initial report) on the phone with numerous agencies that might have information on whether the body of a second boy existed.

Smith called UMC, which had no record of the boy being admitted there. He called TMC, which said the same thing. He then used a photo provided by Pineda, which aired in the stories, only to discover through reverse imaging that the photo is of a boy featured in a recently-aired HBO documentary, Homeless, the Motel Kids of Orange County. Smith is then shown on the phone with Pascua Yaqui Police Chief Michael Valenzuela, who says there is no record of any boy recently committing suicide on tribal land. Smith then checked with the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office. No record.

All of this checking might bring up a fairly obvious question: Why didn't KGUN and KVOA check with UMC, TMC, Pascua Yaqui authorities and the Medical Examiner's Office, or say, PCSO and/or TPD, before running the story?

KGUN has been fairly mum about the situation. Journal Tucson GM Jim Arnold's brief response via e-mail: "Police are the ones to talk to. We can't comment on the situation further at this time."

That doesn't exactly answer where the breakdown was. Could it have been because the story aired on a Sunday when there's less staff, in newsrooms that have been significantly cut in terms of personnel and experience over the years?

Or that it tugged on the heartstrings, so KGUN and KVOA picked up the charge and went with it? The latter would explain why two stations ran a story about a suicide in the first place. Newsroom policy is that suicides are generally not reported.

Ginger Castallano, a manager at the Branding Iron bar, which participated in a fundraiser, told KGUN: "When someone tells you their son committed suicide, you believe them. We believed her."

And that's obviously a natural reaction when someone shares a tragedy. Most of us are trusting enough to take it at face value. But when the media takes something at face value, or doesn't have the time or take the time or understand the processes necessary to follow through, this is what can happen.

KGUN and KVOA aren't the first to be burned, and they won't be the last. Highly respected media entities have been duped. Pulitzer Prizes have been won based on false information. It happens. I'm surprised, that in this era of instant story turnaround, this stuff doesn't occur more often. It's certainly an opportunity to reflect on whether the policies and structures currently in place are effective, and what can be done to make them more so.

It might be worth noting that KGUN has endured two fairly significant missteps since its search to find a replacement for news director Forrest Carr. Since Carr's departure, KGUN has stumbled through the fake suicide story and a production misstep that allowed an expletive to be broadcast over the air.


For the better part of seven years, Media Watch has periodically included the results of Arbitron's quarterly radio ratings. It's not terribly exciting stuff, and given the archaic nature of Arbitron's diary approach in this market, there's certainly room to question just how accurate they are.

Most of those mentions include the note that some combination of KIIM FM 99.5, KRQQ FM 93.7 and KMXZ 94.9 Mixfm finished in the top three.

This section will not mention that. For the first time since I've been tabulating this column, one of the top three didn't finish in the top three in Arbitron's 12-plus figures. Mix got credited for a paltry 5.5 share in the spring 2013 book. That put it in fourth, behind Cumulus-owned KHYT FM 107.5, which delivered a 6.0 number.

It's perhaps interesting on a couple of fronts. First, KHYT continues to deliver improved numbers since its transition to a classic hits format. Its 6.0 share is a reasonable increase from the 5.5 numbers from the last two books. It's also great news for Cumulus, the first cluster to garner two top-three finishes in years.

For Mix, is it an anomaly? Probably. KMXZ garnered consecutive 8.2 shares in the previous books and an 8.5 before that. Dropping nearly three points in a single book seems more a blip than a trend, but having that blip occur in the spring book is terrible timing, since few folks take the summer ratings book seriously and the fall numbers won't be released until the first of the year.

A similar dip happened to KRQQ in the fall 2012 book. The top-40 station garnered a 6.1 number. Since then KRQQ has rebounded with a 7.9 and a 9.2. The 9.2 is good for a tie with KIIM for the top spot in the market.

However, Clear Channel's decision to pull news/talk from the FM and replace it with Wild Country at 97.1 is looking disastrous. Under the news/talk banner simulcast with KNST AM 790, the 97.1 frequency was delivering numbers in the 4 range. In the latest book, they rated a 0.9, down from the 1.0 registered in the first book that reflected the format switch.

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